Mateen Cleaves could have played for the U.S. at the World
University Games in Spain last summer, or he could have traveled
around the world with some barnstorming college all-star team.
Instead, Cleaves chose to stay in school. He spent his summer
vacation taking classes at Michigan State, eating his mom's
home-cooked meals in nearby Flint and conducting lonely workouts
at the Breslin Center on campus. From time to time coach Tom
Izzo would call Cleaves to tell him the Spartans were close to
signing a deal to schedule one basketball powerhouse or another.
"He was worried about what back-to-back tough games would do to
the team," Cleaves says. "I told him, Let's play 'em all, coach.
That's what college basketball is about."
It seemed like good advice at the time. After all, Michigan State
was bringing back five of its top six scorers and four of its top
five rebounders from a team that finished 33-5 and reached the
Final Four. So Izzo lined up a murderers' row for the Spartans to
play during the first two months of the season--at North Carolina
on Dec. 1, against Kansas in Chicago on Dec. 7, at Arizona on
Dec. 11 and at Kentucky on Dec. 23.
Now, however, Izzo has a problem. Cleaves suffered a stress
fracture in his right foot soon after practice started and had to
have surgery on Oct. 25 to repair it. He won't return to the
lineup until at least the end of December. He might be available
for the start of Big Ten play on Jan. 5, and there's still the
Feb. 5 date with Connecticut in East Lansing to look forward to,
but Cleaves's injury has dealt a serious blow to Michigan State's
national championship aspirations--not to mention the disruptions
it has caused to Izzo's sleeping patterns. "I feel bad for the
kid because he really worked his butt off this summer," Izzo
says. "People like to say no one person is bigger than the
program, but it's not always true. It'll be interesting how we
handle this. If you're a good program, you can survive."
The Spartans would be facing a difficult test even if they had
an experienced point guard waiting in the wings, but they don't.
Last season's backup, 6'3" sophomore Doug Davis,
figured--ironically enough--that he wouldn't get much playing
time with Cleaves around for another season, so he transferred
to Miami of Ohio. Izzo decided not to recruit another point
guard because he wanted to show his commitment to Marcus Taylor,
a gifted senior at Lansing's Waverly High, who he hoped would be
his point guard of the future. (Taylor committed to Michigan
State on Aug. 30.) That leaves 6'7" junior David Thomas, who
redshirted last year in order to work on his game. Trouble is,
Thomas has never been a full-time point guard, not even in high
Even without Cleaves, the Spartans possess a blend of talent and
experience that is all but extinct in the college game. Their
best player, 6'6" swingman Morris Peterson, is a senior, as is
6'9" A.J. Granger, who will start at power forward. The other two
returning starters, 6'3" Charlie Bell and 6'8" Andre Hutson, are
juniors. Even the best newcomer--Mike Chappell, a 6'9"
sweet-shooting transfer from Duke--is a junior. "Last year people
were really hoping we could win a national title," Hutson says.
"This year people are expecting it."
The Spartans face a challenge in replacing the departed Antonio
Smith, who was the team's top rebounder and emotional leader, but
they finally got some good news last week when they learned that
6'6" freshman Jason Richardson, a McDonald's All-America who had
been declared ineligible by the NCAA, was cleared to play this
season. That adds some much-needed frontcourt depth, but Michigan
State's best chance at cutting down the nets in Indianapolis
would be for Peterson to have an All-America year. That would be
a remarkable achievement considering that four years ago he was
an overweight, immature freshman who had to take a medical
redshirt year because of a broken finger. The next season, to
discipline Peterson for not following team rules, Izzo left him
home while the Spartans traveled to a tournament in Hawaii.
Peterson has toed the line ever since. Last year he led Michigan
State in scoring with 13.6 points a game and was named first team
all-Big Ten despite being a reserve. He never complained about
Most of this discussion will be moot, however, if Cleaves
doesn't come back as strong as ever when his foot heals. Shortly
after learning that he needed surgery, he delivered a fiery
speech to his teammates. "I know people are going to drop us in
the rankings," he told them, "but our goal is still to win a
national championship." Later that afternoon Cleaves's mother,
Frances, gently kissed his forehead as he was about to be
wheeled into a hospital operating room. It will be interesting
to see how the Spartans will look upon that scene a few months
from now. Will they view it as the start of a painful period
from which they emerged stronger? Or will they see it as the
moment when they kissed their goal goodbye?
POS. HT. CLASS KEY STAT
SF Morris Peterson 6'6" Sr. 13.6 ppg
PF A.J. Granger 6'9" Sr. 6.6 ppg
C Andre Hutson 6'8" Jr. 5.2 rpg
SG Charlie Bell 6'3" Jr. 7.8 ppg
PG David Thomas 6'7" Jr. 3.5 ppg
1998-99 record: 33-5 Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 3